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Are pens, paper free for taking?

Study finds 1 in 5 workers admit to taking office supplies in past year

As a reporter, I get a free supply of notebooks and pens. It comes with the job.

Apparently, many workers think so, too.

Nearly one in five workers admitted to stealing office supplies in the past year, according to a recent survey of 1,630 U.S. employees by Spherion Corp., a Fort Lauderdale recruiting agency. Brent Short, managing director of Spherion, believes the figure is likely higher because some workers are not admitting to pilfering.

Bev Rosen, president of Wellness at Work, a workplace training and consulting firm in Lutherville, has found through her workplace civility workshops that many workers don't think stealing office supplies is unethical because "it's something everybody does and it doesn't hurt anyone." Rosen says even managers have taken pens and pads home.

Still, 71 percent of workers surveyed said it's wrong to take pens, pencils and folders from the supply cabinet.

Then why do workers do it?

Joshua Newberg, an associate professor who teaches business law and ethics at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, cites a few reasons. The first is a worker's sense of entitlement.

"There are very few of us who feel that we get all the compensation and all the perks that we want and need as part of doing our jobs," he says. "So we feel entitled to take those things."

Newberg also believes the larger the organization, the less guilt a worker feels about snatching file folders or legal pads for personal use.

Experts say it's a tricky situation all around.

Most companies crack down on the theft of company properties, such as laptops and other big-ticket items, but experts say the line is less clear when it comes to small things like pens and paper.

Human resource experts say managers need to set clear expectations of what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to using and taking office supplies.

"Once you've laid the groundwork, it's very appropriate to hold them accountable," said Christine Walters, a human resources and employment law consultant in Glyndon.

That means workers should think twice before raiding the supplies. Do you really want to get burned over a bunch of pens?

Have an opinion on this topic or comments and questions on other sticky workplace issues? Send them my way to Please include your first name and your city.

Hanah Cho is on vacation. Her column will return on July 31.

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